What to Do if Social Media is Contributing to Your Eating Disorder or Body Image Struggles | Opinion

There is no doubt that technological advancements in social media have changed the world. But we also know that social media platforms have contributed to mental health and body image issues in their adolescent users, particularly teen girls. These issues include suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and beyond.

But teen girls aren't the only population that's been affected by social media platforms. Everyone, from young children to older adults, is vulnerable to the detrimental effects of the Facebook and Instagram algorithms.

This doesn't mean that you have to run out and delete your social media accounts because there are many benefits to our connectivity through social media, but it does mean you should re-evaluate your relationship to apps like Instagram and Facebook if they are impacting your mental health.

Social Media Addiction and Internalizing Harmful Content

Apps like Instagram and Facebook can be extremely addictive. In fact, they actually change the structure and function of our brains.

And not only that—these apps activate the same neuronal reward pathways that slot machines, drugs and alcohol do, which means social media use can quickly become a compulsive behavior.

And it may cause more damage than you realize, especially if you are vulnerable to the type of content that can cause or worsen body image issues. Think celebrities, models, "fitstagram" trainers, bloggers and influencers who glorify diets and over-value thinness.

When you view and interact with this type of negative content, you may not realize how you are internalizing this messaging and how these images can reinforce a sense of stigmatization of those whose bodies do not "match" with unrealistic body images. But the consequences are undeniable. According to a study published in Computers in Human Behavior Reports, Instagram is associated with body image issues, social comparison, low self-esteem, disordered eating and other negative issues.

How to Protect Your Mental Health

The first step to protecting yourself is to understand the potential destructive impact of social media. Next time you go to pick up your smartphone, be mindful, ask yourself if it's necessary or if you are simply doing it out of boredom or compulsion. Once you realize why you turn to your phone, such as in times of stress, boredom, out of habit, or when you are alone or lonely, you can begin to understand the compulsive cycle of use and then take action to break that cycle.

One of the best things you can do for your mental health is to limit your exposure to body-shaming content. Make a pact with yourself not to follow accounts that contribute to disordered eating and encourage dieting, excessive exercise, body comparisons and more. Take the time to go through your social media accounts and do a timeline cleanse—unfollow, mute, or even block toxic accounts.

Social media apps are pictured
Social media apps are pictured. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Here are some other things you can do to protect yourself online:

—Follow socially conscious and body-positive influencers that celebrate all types of bodies;

—Limit social media use when first waking up and going to sleep;

—Block and report trolls; resist the urge to engage with them;

—Use an app that helps limit screen time;

—Log off social media if something triggers you and instead reach out to a friend or loved one for connection;

—Join a book club, consider volunteer work, or making a contribution in your local community, better yet, ask a friend or family to join you!

Invest in Relationships That Enrich Your Life

We all know how easy it can be to become obsessed with the lives of celebrities and influencers, however toxic they may be. But we don't really know these people, and the investment is one-sided, a shadow of a real relationship.

Instead, commit to investing in the relationships that enrich your life, those that exist outside the boundaries of image-based apps like Instagram and Facebook. Picking up your smartphone every few minutes may be a hard habit to break at first, but it's undeniable that focusing on your real-life relationships is a smarter and healthier use of your time and energy.

One helpful tip is to create a structure in your life where you put your phone away for a certain period of time. This might mean leaving your phone in a different room while you spend time with a spouse or friend. Or, you might have a basket everyone must put their phones in once they get home in the evening.

Regardless of how you choose to create structure in your life and relationships, one thing remains true: putting away your phone is an act of love and commitment, a way to omit the things that don't matter and embrace those that do.

Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt is a psychiatrist with 20 years of experience designing eating disorder treatment programs. She is the chief medical officer of Within Health, an all-virtual eating disorder treatment provider.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.